The case for human interaction

The Atlantic Staff Writer Vann Newkirk II and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney. (Photo courtesy of The Atlantic Live)

The Atlantic held its third Annual Race and Justice Summit in Charlotte, examining racial disparities and injustice across the country. The discussion brought to the table various local leaders — judges, districts attorneys, artists and activists — whose work in Charlotte communities intersect and impact these topics.

The discussions were framed to answer a burning question for our community: What would “liberty and justice for all” actually look like in Charlotte?

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Chief Kerr Putney joined the discussion as he and the department have worked to establish a stronger presence in these dialogues about our community.

Putney began his interview with a story of how he devised a plan to bring to light racist hiring practices within the police department — then known as the Charlotte Police Department — by applying to become an officer. He received an outcome he didn't expect; he was hired. He didn't trust police and didn’t trust the profession, yet found himself in the same uniform he had come to hate.

“My calculation was a little off,” said Putney, jokingly looking back on his predicament.

Decades later, he’s found himself at the head of the department looking to dispel the same mistrust he once harbored.

Throughout the discussion, Chief Putney doesn’t offer a clean, packaged answer that will solve the problems that exist primarily between police and communities of color. But he does offer a starting point: the initiative to make a connection.

“I understand it,” Chief Putney responded when asked about the mistrust directed toward law enforcement. “But don’t take 20-plus years like I did to get to know a few of them [police officers] on a human level.”

‘It’s hard to hate up close’ is a mantra Putney has turned to in countless interviews, committee meetings and panel discussions. It’s a statement, in its essence, that encourages residents and police to work at fighting away the implicit biases that cloud our judgement to make a connection. While there are other factors that contribute to the various levels of mistrust, interaction at a personal level goes a long way in building a foundation to tear down barriers that exist elsewhere.

CMPD is arguably the most visible department taking a more aggressive approach to these engagements, but there’re happening everywhere. Conversations around Charlotte, One Year Later, helped staff better understand what progress in our communities looks like to Charlotte residents. Conversely, campaigns like Meet & Eat, have introduced a side of government to Charlotteans that they might have otherwise never knew existed. These learnings all started with dialogue.

The challenges that CMPD faces are unique and carry with them much more serious ramifications than most other work conducted within the city, but the common thread that brings the work of all public servants together is the basic human bond with the people we serve.

Watch Chief Putney’s full segment on The Atlantic Live’s Race and Justice Summit.

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